Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction

An intervention can motivate someone to seek help for alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders or other addictive behaviors. Discover when to hold one and how to make it successful.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

It can be challenging to help a loved one struggling with alcoholism, drug problems, an eating disorder or other destructive behavior. Sometimes a direct, heart-to-heart conversation can start the road to recovery. But when it comes to addiction, a more focused approach is often needed. You may need to join forces with others and take action through a formal intervention.

People who struggle with addictive behaviors are often in denial about their situation or are unwilling to seek treatment. Often they don't recognize the negative effects their behavior has on themselves and others. An intervention presents your loved one a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse.

What is an intervention?

An intervention is a carefully planned process involving family and friends and sometimes colleagues, clergy members or others who care about a person struggling with addiction. During the intervention, these people gather together to confront the person about the consequences of addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment. The intervention:

  • Provides specific examples of destructive behaviors and their impact on the addicted person and loved ones
  • Offers a prearranged treatment plan with clear steps, goals and guidelines
  • Spells out what each person will do if a loved one refuses to accept treatment

Who might benefit from an intervention?

An intervention can help people who struggle with addictive behaviors but who are in denial about their situation or who have been unwilling to accept treatment. Some examples of behaviors that may warrant an intervention include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Prescription drug abuse
  • Abuse of street drugs
  • Eating disorders
  • Compulsive gambling

People with addiction often don't see the negative effects their behavior has on them and others. It's important not to wait until they "want help." Instead, think of an intervention as giving your loved one a clear opportunity to make changes before things get really bad.

How does a typical intervention work?

An intervention usually includes the following steps:

  1. Planning. A family member or friend proposes an intervention and forms a planning group. It's best if you consult with an intervention professional (interventionist), a qualified professional counselor or a social worker when planning an intervention. An intervention is a highly charged situation and has the potential to cause anger, resentment or a sense of betrayal. If you have any concerns that the intervention may trigger anger or violent behavior, consult an intervention professional before taking any action.
  2. Gathering information. The group members find out about the extent of the loved one's problem and research the condition and treatment programs. The group may make arrangements to enroll the loved one in a specific treatment program.
  3. Forming the intervention team. The planning group forms a team that will personally participate in the intervention. Team members set a date and location and work together to present a consistent, rehearsed message and a structured treatment plan. Do not let your loved one know what you are doing until the day of the intervention.
  4. Deciding on specific consequences. If your loved one doesn't accept treatment, each person on the team needs to decide what action he or she will take. Examples include asking your loved one to move out or taking away contact with children.
  5. Writing down what to say. Each member of the intervention team should detail specific incidents where the addiction has resulted in problems, such as emotional or financial issues. Discuss the toll of your loved one's behavior while still expressing care and the expectation that your loved one can change.
  6. The intervention meeting. Without revealing the reason, the loved one is asked to the intervention site. Members of the core team then take turns expressing their concerns and feelings. The loved one is presented with a treatment option and asked to accept that option on the spot. Each team member will say what specific changes they will make if the addicted person doesn't accept the plan.
  7. Follow-up. Involving a spouse, family members or others is critical in helping someone with an addiction stay in treatment and avoid relapsing. This can include changing patterns of everyday living to make it easier to avoid destructive behavior, offering to participate in counseling with your loved one, seeking your own therapist and recovery support, and knowing what to do if relapse occurs.

A successful intervention must be planned carefully to work as intended. A poorly planned intervention can worsen the situation — your loved one may feel attacked and become isolated or more resistant to treatment.

Should you consult a professional for an intervention?

Consulting an intervention professional (interventionist), an addiction specialist, psychologist or mental health counselor can help you organize an effective intervention. It may be a good idea to have the intervention professional attend the actual intervention to help keep things on track.

It's a good idea to get professional help if your loved one:

  • Has a history of serious mental illness
  • Has a history of violence
  • Has had suicidal behavior or recently talked about suicide
  • May be taking several mood-altering substances
  • Is in denial, likely to become angry or tends to minimize his or her situation

It's especially important to consult an intervention professional if you suspect your loved one may react violently or self-destructively.

Aug. 23, 2011 See more In-depth